[A picture of private offices at Fog Creek Software]

Joel on Software

The Identity Management Method

by Joel Spolsky
Thursday, August 10, 2006

When you’re trying to get a team all working in the same direction, we’ve seen that Command and Control management and Econ 101 management both fail pretty badly in high tech, knowledge- oriented teams.

That leaves a technique that I’m going to have to call The Identity Method. The goal here is to manage by making people identify with the goals you’re trying to achieve. That’s a lot trickier than the other methods, and it requires some serious interpersonal skills to pull off. But if you do it right, it works better than any other method.

The problem with Econ 101 management is that it subverts intrinsic motivation. The Identity Method is a way to create intrinsic motivation.

To be an Identity Method manager, you have to summon all the social skills you have to make your employees identify with the goals of the organization, so that they are highly motivated, then you need to give them the information they need to steer in the right direction.

How do you make people identify with the organization?

It helps if the organizational goals are virtuous, or perceived as virtuous, in some way. Apple creates almost fanatic identification, almost entirely through a narrative that started with a single Superbowl ad in 1984: we are against totalitarianism. Doesn’t seem like a particularly bold position to take, but it worked. Here at Fog Creek, we stand bravely in opposition to killing kittens. Yaaaay!

A method I’m pretty comfortable with is eating together. I’ve always made a point of eating lunch with my coworkers, and at Fog Creek we serve catered lunches for the whole team every day and eat together at one big table. It’s hard to understate what a big impact this has on making the company feel like a family, in the good way, I think. In six years, nobody has ever quit.

I’m probably going to freak out some of our summer interns by admitting this, but one the goals of our internship program is to make people identify as New Yorkers, so they’re more comfortable with the idea of moving here after college and working for us full-time. We do this through a pretty exhausting list of extra-curricular summer activities: two Broadway shows, a trip to the Top of the Rock, a boat ride around Manhattan, a Yankees game, an open house so they can meet more New Yorkers, and a trip to a museum; Michael and I host parties in our apartments, both as a way of welcoming the interns but also as a way for interns to visualize living in an apartment in New York, not just the dorm we stuck them in.

In general, Identity Management requires you to create a cohesive, jelled team that feels like a family, so that people have a sense of loyalty and commitment to their coworkers.

The second part, though, is to give people the information they need to steer the organization in the right direction.

Earlier today Brett came into my office to discuss ship dates for FogBugz 6.0. He was sort of leaning towards April 2007; I was sort of leaning towards December 2006. Of course, if we shipped in April, we would have time to do a lot more polishing, and improve a lot of areas of the product; if we shipped in December, we’d probably have to cut a bunch of nice new features.

What I explained to Brett, though, is that we want to hire six new people in the spring, and the chances that we’ll be able to afford them without FogBugz 6.0 are much smaller. So the way I concluded the meeting with Brett was to make him understand the exact financial motivations I have for shipping earlier, and now that he knows that, I’m confident he’ll make the right decision... not necessarily my decision. Maybe we’ll have a big upswing in sales without FogBugz 6.0, and now that Brett understands the basic financial parameters, he’ll realize that maybe that means we can hold 6.0 for a few more features. The point being that by sharing information, I can get Brett to do the right thing for Fog Creek even if circumstances change. If I tried to push him around by offering him a cash reward for every day before April that he ships, his incentive would be to dump the existing buggy development build on the public tonight. If I tried to push him around using Command and Control management by ordering him to ship bug free code on time, dammit, he might do it, but he’d hate his job and leave.

Conclusion

There are as many different styles of management as there are managers. I’ve identified three major styles: two easy, dysfunctional styles and one hard, functional style, but the truth is that many development shops manage in more of an ad-hoc, “whatever works” way that may change from day to day or person to person.


Have you been wondering about Distributed Version Control? It has been a huge productivity boon for us, so I wrote Hg Init, a Mercurial tutorial—check it out!

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About the author.

I’m Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Fog Creek Software, a New York company that proves that you can treat programmers well and still be highly profitable. Programmers get private offices, free lunch, and work 40 hours a week. Customers only pay for software if they’re delighted. We make Trello, easy web-based collaboration software, FogBugz, an enlightened bug tracking and software development tool, and Kiln, a distributed source control system that will blow your socks off. I’m also the co-founder and CEO of Stack Exchange. More about me.

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